Bank Credit Freeze…Thawing?

Maybe it is time we start taking bankers at their word that commercial real estate wasn’t and isn’t a catastrophe waiting to happen. Maybe, just maybe, as they’ve been telling us for the last four consecutive quarters, there are serious risks but they are manageable and are being dealt with and disposed of.

Why, now?

Because third quarter commercial bank earnings reports released in the last week seem to back up that talk. Individually, there are definitely still banks in trouble. But collectively banks seem to be on the tail end of their commercial real estate troubles. Distressed loan levels have stabilized, the amount of new delinquencies is decreasing and more banks are beginning to push troubled assets back into the marketplace.

Banks’ exposure to CRE loans has been a source of concern for many observers, said James Abbott, senior vice president, investor relations and external communications for Zions Bancorporation, but “so far that is not playing out in our portfolio and has been reasonably benign around the industry.”

In fact, there are a lot of indications the commercial real estate market is stabilizing and even strengthening, Abbott said.

“If you look at CMBS spreads and some other indicia of this, it’s appearing that maybe we’re not going to see the kind of storm some had predicted,” he said. “But I think it’s going to take another two or three quarters perhaps before it’s really clear that there aren’t substantial losses around the industry in that product type.”

Some banks even reported in their quarterly earnings conference calls that they are gearing up for increasing their commercial real estate lending activity or seeing renewed interest in borrowing. Such banks are still the exception, not the norm, but we haven’t heard this kind of chatter since 2007.

“I would say that we’ve continued to be very judicious in the commercial real estate area,” said Jerry Plush, senior executive vice president, CFO and chief risk officer of Webster Financial Corp.

“[We] continue to look for opportunities that make sense for us, and we’re continuing to see that there is definitely some build-up in the pipeline there that we could see in the coming quarters,” Plush added. “We’re not saying that there is going to be substantial growth,” Plush said. “It would be either to maintain balances or slightly above, but soon you will start to see the emergence of those small business and middle-market numbers rising in the commercial category.”

Rene Jones, chief financial officer of M&T Bank Corp., said her bank is seeing customers paying down debt and repositioning themselves for future expansion.

“We’ve seen in the commercial real estate space a number of pretty well healed commercial real estate folks actually just looking at the liquidity and their portfolio, maybe selling down some projects to improve the overall liquidity position,” Jones said. “But overall, our commitments aren’t up, so I think people are just on hold. The rates are low, they’re trying to lock in some credit today but they’re not necessarily using it because they’re not yet investing.”

Beth Mooney, vice chairman of KeyCorp, said they are definitely starting to see stability in commercial real estate, particularly the middle market loan book.

“We have obviously seen that client base de-lever over the last seven to eight quarters. But if you look into the trends from the first, to the second, to third quarter, we had the lowest level of decline in this quarter that we’ve seen through the cycle and we are actually starting to see, particularly in our Great Lakes and Northeastern regions, signs of increased new business activity and modest glimmers of loan growth,” Mooney said. “However, on net you still see pressures in the Western markets. They were late into the cycle, but we do see some pickup in business activity and clearly signs of stability in the middle market book, as well as in the core leasing portfolio, which intersects with a lot of that same client base of renewed activity.”

Bank executives also highlighted a greater willingness to sell buildings and reported more success in disposing of troubled assets on their third quarter earnings conference calls.

“We’re very pleased with the overall results of our problem assets disposition strategy, and the momentum we are building toward this effort,” said Clarke Starnes, chief risk officer and senior executive vice president at BB&T Corp. “In the third quarter, we actually assembled a team of about 12 sales specialists, together with some significant operational and marketing support to begin a sales program for about $1.3 billion in commercial nonperforming loans that were transferred to the held for sale category.”

“Our effort consists of a four-pronged strategy. It’s in this priority: short sales to the borrowers; third-party direct; third-party bulk, and then some other option,” Starnes added. “We get our best pricing execution when we’re dealing more directly with the borrowers, but it takes a longer time to do that. At auctions you can do it much quicker, but you’ve got to do your discounts. So what we’re really trying to do is blend these various liquidation alternatives to achieve the best execution that we can, while balancing the time to liquidate.”

Bob Kaminski, COO, executive vice president at Mercantile Bank Corp., said: “I think our staff has done a good job of working with borrowers on properties that were even in foreclosure to try to affect sales of those properties so that they may be never make it into the ORE bucket. Loans that do make it into foreclosure due to foreclosure process, many times have buyers that are waiting at the end of the redemption period to complete those sales.”

“So it’s really on a page-by-page basis,” Kaminski added. “You have some properties that are little bit hard to sell, may be spending a little bit of a longer time in the ORE buckets, and others that are more attractive from a purchasing standpoint tending to spend a lot less time in those categories.”

Mary Tuuk, chief risk officer of Fifth Third Bancorp, said they have been very focused on higher risk portfolios such as non-owner occupied real estate.

“We’ve worked hard over time to achieve the best solutions possible on troubled credits,” Tuuk said. “As part of that process, [the special assets group] continually identifies the loans most likely to result in a successful workout given enough time and which loans are less likely to result in an acceptable outcome. For that latter group of loans, our options include a long-term workout strategy or a shorter-term solution, one of which is the possibility of selling a loan and the redeploying the resources that would be devoted to a longer-term solution.”

“We are marketing these loans in several pools targeted at particular (buyer basis). Land loans in one pool, vertical CRE in another, syndicated loans in another and a final pool that we intend to sell to investors, loan-by-loan,” Tuuk said. “These loans, particularly the nonperforming ones, would generally represent the more troubled parts of our commercial portfolio with a high content of commercial real estate in general, particularly land and construction.” (credit co-star,m.heschmeyer)